Friday, January 01, 2010

Dump the Health Insurance Bill


Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Since Barack Obama took office as President almost a year ago, progressives have sat nervously on the sidelines as Congress debated proposals to “reform” the health insurance industry. With Obama and the major-domos in Congress refusing even to consider getting rid of this vulturous cancer on the American body economic — an industry that sucks up to 40 percent of every dollar we spend on health care and offers precisely nothing in exchange — the health-insurance debate quickly settled into a series of cliffhangers like an old movie serial. Would the final bill contain a “public option” to challenge the private insurers in the marketplace, an already anemic compromise rendered even more impotent as it was run through the Congressional meat grinder before the putrid Joe Lieberman killed it altogether? Would it contain any effective controls on the cost of health insurance or pharmaceutical drugs? Would there be any rational reason for progressives to support it once it emerged from both houses of Congress and into the clutches of the secret “conference committee” formed to reconcile the vast differences between the House and Senate versions?

We now have the answers to these questions: no, no and no. The final bills passed by both houses of Congress, especially the Senate, are pustulant boils on the body politic that deserve, not final enactment, but to be lanced. There is no reason for anyone to the Left of Attila the Hun to support legislation that is a blatant corporate welfare program to the insurance and pharmaceutical companies, raising the already bloated U.S. national debt by $1 trillion or more just to make rich insurance and drug company executives and investors even richer. Any parts of the bill that might have actually helped solve the problems with American health care have been meticulously scissored out of it, and what’s left is a giant giveaway of borrowed money that will most likely doom the Democratic Party nationwide in the next two elections whether it passes or not.

The outcome shouldn’t be all that surprising. From the get-go, Obama’s administration has been under steady pressure, not from the Left but from the Right — both the Wall Street corporate Right and the maniac talk-radio, Fox News, “teabagger” Right. Whether the youthful minions who organized to help elect Obama were genuinely progressive or just impressed by the messianic figure Obama cut during the campaign, they’ve disappeared into the woodwork and are now totally irrelevant as a political force. So is the Left in general, reduced to its usual choice — wring our hands in frustration and keep supporting Obama, hoping for crumbs from his and Congress’s table; or wring our hands in frustration and absent ourselves from electoral politics altogether (or from the major parties, which in the U.S. amounts to the same thing), thereby allowing the Right’s ideological crazies to take over the country completely?

Let’s have a look at what the health “reform” bill will — and won’t — do. First, it will require that everyone in the country purchase the health insurance industry’s product. For the first time in U.S. history, a private industry will be able essentially to levy a tax on the whole population — one that you will have to pay, with the same threats of prison or fines that apply if you refuse to pay the government’s own taxes. What’s more, the insurance industry will be able to set the rate of that tax at whatever it likes — with the government supposedly picking up all or part of the tab for people who can’t afford it. The mandate (which Obama opposed during the primary campaign) is sometimes justified by comparison with the mandate in many states (including California) that people who drive buy auto insurance — but there, at least, people have the choice not to drive. The health insurance industry will be the first in the nation’s history that will be able to impose a private levy on every single American simply for living here.

Second, far from weaning the American health care system off its dependency on private insurers, it will lock that dependency even more strongly into place and make it ironclad. Those progressives in Congress who rationalize their votes for this bill by saying it’s a “first step” towards reforms that will de-emphasize private health insurance are living in a land of illusion. Third, it bears the stink of the corrupt private deals that were made to pass it — including a provision that, to attract the vote of Democratic senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, exempts his state from paying Medicare fees all 49 other states must contribute to the federal program. Fourth, it sells out one of the most loyal Democratic Party constituencies of the last 30 years — pro-choice women — by making it virtually impossible to obtain a health insurance policy that covers abortion and reproductive choice in general. And fifth, it doesn’t even cover everybody; by the administration’s own reckoning, it will still leave about 20 million Americans with no way to pay for health care at all.

What the health bill won’t do is impose any meaningful cost controls on either the health care industry in general or the private health insurers. Anything that might have made it a true health care reform — that might have taken a serious look at why U.S. medicine costs so much more than any other advanced industrial country’s and how our system could be changed to deliver health care more efficiently to those who need it most — has been reduced to a handful of grants for “pilot projects” that will no doubt putter along for years and produce reports less than 12 people will read. Insurance companies will be able not only to have captive customers for their product but to charge whatever they like for it — and, like the corrupt Wall Street bankers who took billions in federal aid to keep their institutions afloat and then paid themselves humongous bonuses instead of actually lending out the money, they have the assurance that the government will keep making up the difference between what they charge and what people can afford, at least as long as China keeps lending us the money to pay for it.

The bill even carefully preserves all the abuses President Bush and a Republican Congress wrote into Medicare Part D, the prescription drug coverage plan. Obama made his peace with the drug companies by promising not to challenge the provision of Part D that actually prevents the government from using its purchasing power to negotiate lower prices from drug companies. He also kept in place the so-called “doughnut hole” — the bizarre setup of Part D that puts a cap on coverage and forces seniors to pay for their drugs out of pocket until they’ve paid a certain amount (usually enough to bankrupt them and/or wipe out their estates) until the coverage kicks in again.

The health bill’s few remaining supporters argue that, despite its rampant giveaways to giant industries that already make more money than they know what to do with, it’s worth passing anyway because it has provisions in it that supposedly curb a few of the most blatant abuses of health insurance companies. What we’re supposed to be getting in return for the over $1 trillion poured down the mouths of the health-insurance vampires is a ban on their denying coverage for people with “pre-existing conditions” (meaning if you actually need coverage, you often can’t get it) or setting lifetime caps on a policy so that once you run out of the money the insurance company has set aside for you, you’re S.O.L.

But anyone who believes that passage of the bill will mean an end to pre-existing condition exclusions or total policy caps probably still believes in Santa Claus. Among the things health insurance companies do with the up to 40 percent of the American health-care budget they suck out without doing anything for it are hire high-priced attorneys who have probably already rewritten their companies’ regulations so they’ll be in technical compliance with the “reform” bill while they continue to do business — and screw their consumers — the way they do now.

The real tragedy of the health issue is it didn’t have to be that way — but we on the Left didn’t do enough to make it happen. Instead of letting the Right crash the Congressional town-hall meetings and attack the entire idea of government involvement in health care, we should have been disrupting them and demanding that single-payer and other alternatives to a private, for-profit insurance industry be seriously debated. Instead of letting the Right mount a march on Washington to denounce Obama as a Kenya-born socialist Muslim, we should have been out on the streets criticizing him for what he is — a weakling who has essentially subcontracted his economic and social policies to giant corporations, continued America’s insane imperialism through his escalation of the war in Afghanistan, and offered a disaster of a health “reform” that will enrich all the wrong people and take America’s health care system further into profit-driven unsustainability.

We didn’t do that because we don’t want it badly enough. The tale of Franklin Roosevelt telling a group of progressives in his office that he agreed with everything they wanted but “now you have to go out and make me do it” has been bandied about a lot this year, but the truth is that the anemic, pathetic excuse for a Left in this country isn’t, and hasn’t been for decades, strong enough to put pressure on anybody to do much of anything. Yes, part of that is because the government mounted three major campaigns of sustained repression against the U.S. Left in the 20th century — in the 1910’s, the 1940’s/1950’s and 1960’s — and each time the Left revived, it was smaller and less of a mass movement than it had been before. Also, part of that is due to the control of the mass media by giant corporations that have narrowed the range of acceptable political debate in this country to center-Right and far-Right.

But part of that is our failure, too. One of the most annoying characteristics of the American Left is its utter misunderstanding of the relationship between electoral politics and direct action. The Right gets it: they work in the Republican Party but refuse to be of it. They support Republican officeholders and candidates, all right, but always with one hand on the door, ready to walk if their demands aren’t met. Progressives don’t: either they bind themselves to particular candidates with an almost religious devotion and think the mere election of a good person who says the right things will solve all the problems; or they turn away, aghast at the compromises any politician needs to make to function in a capitalist system whose ruling class funds their campaigns, and either waste their electoral efforts in alternative parties or don’t vote at all. Often, in fact, they do both those things in succession: they flock to a Kennedy, a Carter, a Clinton, an Obama, then turn away again in disgust when those people don’t prove to be the secular messiahs their more credulous progressive supporters were hoping for.

The 2010 and 2012 elections are shaping up as mega-sweeps for the Republican Party, at least in part because the blatancy with which Obama’s administration has opened the doors of the treasury and shoveled (borrowed) money towards giant corporations — Wall Street bankers and investment companies, auto companies, and now health insurance and drug companies — while utterly failing to revive the economy or expand employment has discredited the whole idea of government intervention in the economy and convinced many voters, particularly independents, that Ronald Reagan was right all along when he said, “Government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem.” The Republicans are also benefiting from what the late political scientist V. O. Key said was Americans’ tendency to vote “retrospectively and negatively” — to vote against what they haven’t liked in the immediate past rather than for something they would like in the future. In 2006 and 2008 this tendency worked for the Democrats; now that Obama owns the recession, the health care debacle, the Wall Street bailouts and the quagmire in Afghanistan, it’s the Republicans’ turn to benefit from voters’ revulsion at the status quo.

Ironically, this gives progressives another reason to vote against the health bill: the probability that it will never take effect anyway. Many of its provisions don’t kick in until 2013 — and if Republicans regain control of Congress in 2010 and Sarah Palin or some equally demented Republican freak unseats Obama in 2012, it’s likely the first act of the new administration and Congress will be to repeal the bill before it’s ever put into practice. Political analysts are eagerly debating whether the Democrats will suffer more harm in this year’s election if the health bill goes through or if it dies — but the Democrats are likely to take a bath this year either way, so progressives like Bernie Sanders, Russ Feingold and Barbara Boxer need to vote their consciences, rediscover their spines and kill this bad bill themselves rather than letting the Republicans do it now or three years hence.